In 1503, at the age of 14, Thomas Cranmer was sent to Jesus College, Cambridge, where he was later ordained and named as one of the university’s preachers, and became an admirer of the humanist Desiderius Erasmus. From 1529 onwards he was involved in advising Thomas Wolsey on the theological issues surrounding the ‘King’s Great Matter’, Henry VIII’s need to find a better wife than Catherine of Aragon to provide him with a son and heir.
Cranmer and Anne Boleyn
In 1532 Cranmer was appointed the resident ambassador at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, but unsurprisingly he was unable to persuade Charles to support the annulment of his aunt Catherine’s marriage. Despite this failure, Cranmer was appointed the new Archbishop of Canterbury, a promotion secured by the family of Anne Boleyn, whom he had served as family chaplain. In June 1533 it was Cranmer who crowned Anne as queen.
When Thomas Cromwell accused Anne of various sexual infidelities in 1536, Cranmer expressed his doubts as to her alleged guilt in a letter to Henry, but it went unheeded. On 16 May he saw Anne in the Tower of London and heard her last confession before pronouncing her marriage to Henry null and void the following day.
In 1539, Cranmer wrote the preface to the new Great Bible in English. He also officiated in the wedding ceremony of Henry and Anne of Cleves, and led the synod which quickly annulled the marriage.After Thomas Cromwell’s execution, Cranmer assumed a prominent political position, being delegated the tricky task of telling Henry about the marital indiscretions of Catherine Howard. When several conservative clergymen plotted against him in 1543, Henry showed total support for Cranmer and the plot failed. Cranmer acted as an executor to Henry’s final will, and grew a beard, partly in mourning for the king and partly to signify his rejection of the old Catholic Church.
Burnt at the stake
When the death of Edward VI, in 1553, ushered in the Catholic ‘Bloody Mary’ (pictured) as queen, the conservative clergy were restored to power. Cranmer was arrested (along with fellow Protestants Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley) and was left to languish in prison in Oxford for two years awaiting trial for heresy, during which Rome deprived him of the archbishopric. Despite a full recantation that should have led to a reprieve under Canon Law, Mary was determined to see him executed, as Latimer and Ridley were.
On 21 March 1556 Cranmer was expected to make a final humiliating recantation from the pulpit of the University Church, Oxford, but he deviated from the prepared script and renounced all his previous recantations, saying, ‘And as for the pope, I refuse him, as Christ’s enemy, and Antichrist with all his false doctrine.’
He was pulled from the pulpit and burned at the stake.